‘This is a matter of political will’

The body responsible for making decisions surrounding Antarctica’s marine region is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an international commission with 25 member states and the European Union, as well as 10 acceding states. Originally established to manage krill fisheries in the Southern Ocean, the commission meets each year in Hobart, Australia, to negotiate total allowable catches for fisheries, and to discuss other matters related to Antarctica’s marine region, including the designation of MPAs.

Any decision requires a consensus among all members, and proposals can take a long time to be approved. For instance, it took more than five years for the commission to approve a proposal to turn a region of the Ross Sea into an MPA, according to Werner. But it finally went ahead in 2016: now 1.55 million km2 (nearly 600,000 mi2)of the Ross Sea is classified as an MPA, with 1.12 million km2 (432,000 mi2) of the region fully protected from commercial fishing.

“In CCAMLR, everything is possible,” said Werner, who acts as an official observer and scientific representative at the commission. “You can have a proposal blocked for years like the Ross Sea, and then one day [it happens].”

Map showing existing MPAs and proposed MPAs in the Southern Ocean. Image by Pew Charitable Trusts.

The nations that may hinder efforts to approve the three new MPA proposals are China and Russia, which have fishing interests in these regions, conservationists say. According to Werner, every year, China extracts about 50,000 metric tons of krill from the Southern Ocean, and Russia takes about 400 metric tons of toothfish from the Ross Sea region.

“This is a matter of political will,” Werner said. “If the political will is there, it’s to be done. If the political will is not there, we can be in the same place as we are right now, and kind of stuck.”

The establishment of these three MPAs would help move the world closer to the goal of protecting 10% of the oceans by 2020, a key target for ocean protection as set out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11.

“We’ve lost 50% of the biodiversity on Earth in 40 years,” Philippe Cousteau, a spokesperson for Antarctica2020 and grandson of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, told Mongabay. “In order to stem that crisis, we need to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 … this year, the goal was to get 10% protected, that would still leave 20% in the decade, which is a lot. But there’s no time for waste.”

Right now, only about 5% of the world’s oceans are protected with MPAs, according to the Marine Conservation Institute.

“It’s kind of a last-ditch effort to make that 2020 deadline of 10% of our ocean being protected,” Ashlan Cousteau, also a spokesperson for Antarctica2020, and Philippe Cousteau’s wife, told Mongabay. “That’s why we’re pushing so hard for this.”

‘The way that Antarctica goes, so does the world’

One of the most important species living in the Southern Ocean is krill. These tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans are the foodstuff for many species, such as whales, seals, penguins, squids, fish and seabirds. Without krill, the pelagic food web would entirely collapse.

Krill is also heavily harvested for human consumption, mainly for fish meal and omega-3 dietary supplements.

The establishment of the three proposed MPAs — which would include no-take zones, but also areas that would allow regulated fishing — would help protect krill populations from overharvesting and enable fishing activities to continue in other areas, Cousteau said. According to one study, MPAs help increase fish mass.

“What’s important to remember is that this establishment of marine protected areas is not an effort to stymie fishing,” Cousteau said. “This is a recognition that is backed up by science, that if we set aside certain areas in the ocean, and fish less, we can catch more.”

But it’s not just fishing that’s a threat to krill — climate change is wreaking havoc on the species as high temperatures melt the ice it vitally depends upon.

“Krill have a huge part of their lifecycle attached to the bottom of that sea ice,” Mittermeier said. “That’s where they lay their eggs … and as climate change continues to melt sea ice and the lifecycle of these animals are threatened … we shouldn’t be extracting that amount of biomass [of krill].”

Protecting the Southern Ocean should be in everyone’s interest since the region helps regulate the world’s climate, Mittermeier said. According to research, this is done by a “conveyor belt” of currents that helps keep Antarctica cold, and the rest of the world warm. It’s also believed that the Southern Ocean helps to moderate the effects of climate change by absorbing heat and carbon.

“The way that Antarctica goes, so does the world,” Mittermeier said. “And the reason for protecting Antarctica is not just to protect krill, but to buy us time … because these protections will lend resiliency to the whole ocean system to buy us time while we curb emissions.”

‘I think there’s no other choice’

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, members of CCAMLR will be meeting online, which will present logistical challenges for members in different time zones. There’s also a shared concern among conservationists that the format of this year’s meeting will not give ample time for the MPA proposals. The meetings are set to take place next week, from Oct. 27-30.

“If they had had the opportunity to meet in person, I think they would have seen that there’s a lot of hunger in the world for this type of protection, that there’s a lot of political positive encouragement,” Mittermeier said. “But because they’re not going to have the opportunity to really debate the importance of the protection, I think it’s going to be postponed to next year. So I’m optimistic it’s going to happen in 2021.”

While it remains uncertain whether the MPAs will be approved this year, Cousteau said that he, too, is optimistic that it will eventually happen.

“I think there’s no other choice,” he said. “I believe that … we will make this happen, if not in 2020, then in 2021

“We have great allies, all over the world, recognizing again, the big picture on this, and the importance of this kind of effort,” he added.

Banner image caption: Gentoo penguins plunge into the sea. Image by Paul Nicklen / SeaLegacy.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.